Welcome back to Colloquium, Jane Haseldine! You Fit the Pattern, the fourth installment in her Julia Gooden thriller series is available now. Yet again, the Detroit crime reporter finds herself enmeshed in a mystery that threatens her life. There is a killer on the loose who stalks his victims and stages the scenes of their murders to very exacting standards. Is he sending Julia a message? And is he destined to make her one of his victims?
Getting Inside Characters’ Heads
As a mystery writer, it’s pretty much guaranteed I’m going to put at least one of my characters into a terrifying situation.
Sorry, Julia Gooden and company, but that’s part of the job.
When I turned in my first book to my editor, he gave me a great piece of writing advice: Get inside your characters’ heads more and let the readers know how they feel.
That nugget has stayed in the back of my mind for everything I’ve written since.
Taking a cue from this critique (and not trying to sound too much like a method actor here), I sometimes get inside my own head when I’m trying to write a nail-biting scene, in search of authenticity and to avoid writing the clichéd “my heart was in my throat,” “my blood ran cold,” or “the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.”
And with this in mind, the same terrifying memory plays out in repeat in my head.
I was eleven and thought I was the unluckiest girl in the world.
But fate was about to teach me a lesson.
I remember it was September because everything had shut down in my town since the tourists left after Labor Day and headed back to their homes in the tony suburbs of Washington, D.C. The first half of my childhood, my family and I lived in a coastal beach town where my big brother, Michael — who would later become the inspiration for my “Ben” character — and I rode the bumper cars at Funland and ate Thrasher’s fries with apple cider vinegar or skinny cartons of Dolle’s caramel corn when the summer season was in full swing.
But when summer was over, Rehoboth Beach became a ghost town with not much for an eleven-year-old girl to do but walk the neighborhood with her friends.
I always wondered if one small thing had changed that day . . . if Mrs. Baird’s car hadn’t turned down the street, or if my friends and I hadn’t run for all we were worth . . . if my life would’ve taken a horrible turn.
It happened on a Saturday, and as usual, I wanted to spend time at my friend’s house where her life seemed gloriously normal.
My dad, a dreamer and charismatic Brit, used to say he’d die if he ever had to sit behind a desk. Instead, he was always chasing his next big business deal where he swore he’d make gobs of cash — which never happened — leaving my mother, and three siblings and me, in a perpetual state of barely scraping by. Our house phone had been shut off since my father hadn’t paid the bill again, and I remember watching as my mother tried to pull something together for dinner from the pantry, as I slipped out the back door and headed to my friend Lisa’s house, where there was always hot chocolate, electric blankets, and prayers before bed.
Our neighborhood was essentially a two-mile square of modest ranch homes and the occasional two-decker for those families who had money.
I hurried past the house of my neighbor, Mr. Baird, who had a wife my friends and I were sure practiced sorcery in her basement. Old Lady Baird, as we meanly called her at the time, always scolded my brother and me about staying off her grass or, God forbid, if we accidentally veered our bikes a centimeter off the sidewalk and onto her driveway.
My friend, Jackie, was already at Lisa’s house, and the three of us decided we would take a walk around the neighborhood. Jackie was the pretty one with an already keen knowledge that boys liked her. Lisa was shy and petite, looking more like she was eight than eleven, and had long blond hair and pale blue eyes. I was the tomboy of the group who cared more about playing baseball with my brother than brushing my perpetually-tangled hair.
It’s funny the trivial things you remember and the events you experienced that get dumped nonetheless in the inconsequential forgotten memory landfill of your brain. On that late afternoon, I remember, when we turned the corner from Lisa’s street, Jackie leaned in close and whispered that her mother had just bought her a bra, and Jackie even let us snap the back of her straps as proof. I was insanely jealous at the time, since God knows I didn’t need a bra yet, and I truly believed the sheer wonder of owning a white trainer bra would somehow catapult me into womanhood.
That’s when I saw the car.
If we’d gone to the police after the incident, I know they would’ve asked me if I remembered the make or model of the vehicle — something my crime reporter character, Julia Gooden, often asks witnesses when she’s looking for clues.
But at the time, I wasn’t paying attention.
Jackie, Lisa, and I walked the block, passed the vacant lot where we sometimes played kickball with the other neighborhood kids, and I shot a look behind me.
The car was still there, driving slowly and keeping a steady pace.
I always thought nothing ever happened in our sleepy little town, but I also had an overactive imagination after watching episodes of “Kolchak — The Night Stalker” with my brother.
Realizing the occupants of the car weren’t likely vampires or zombies like Carl Kolchak had to battle on a weekly basis, I snuck another quick glance behind me.
Now I could see the car was brown and an older model, with two males inside.
I still wonder if my not-so-perfect life at the time put me on higher alert and ultimately saved us. When you expect bad things to happen, you prepare for the worst, even if you’re eleven.
So in that split second, I came up with a plan.
I told my friends not to turn around — since it might tip off the people in the car that we were on to them — and I let Jackie and Lisa know we were being followed. Jackie was sure they were high school boys who might like us, but I didn’t buy it, since why would teenage boys want to hang out with little girls in elementary school? Plus, I had two older sisters in high school, and their male friends called me “Sprout,” when and if they decided to give me the time of day.
Then it clicked.
The guys in the car had to be friends of my sister’s wanting to play a prank on us.
That’s all it had to be. But I had no intention of letting them win, so I came up with a plan.
We were nearing the corner of the street that had a big house on the right. Next to the home was a large field with a waist-high wooden fence that ran the length of road until it ended at my street.
Instead of making a run for it, as Lisa suggested, I convinced my friends to use the house for cover when we made the turn, and then we’d hop over the fence and hide until the car drove by.
We walked along normally, thinking how brilliant we were that we were going to outsmart the older boys, until we reached the corner. As soon as we were out of the car’s line of sight, we jumped over the fence and hid on the other side. We waited there for a minute, giggling over the fact that we beat the teenage boys at their own game.
I could hear the sound of a car drive by and, figuring we’d lost them, I nodded to my friends that the coast was clear and stood up.
But on the other side of the fence was a man I had never seen before who was my father’s age.
I remember my brain at first not being able to process the stocky stranger who stood only a few feet away from me. He was supposed to be a teenage boy, after all.
I could also see the brown car more clearly now. It was parked right next to the stocky man. The car was still running, with the driver inside and the passenger door wide open.
The strange man did a quick assessment of my friends and then me. I just stood there at first, unable to move, when his eyes went back to my friend Lisa, the smallest of our group.
Looking back on it now through the jaded eyes of a former crime reporter, I realize he was likely singling out who he perceived was the most vulnerable. Unless he had a specific type.
I know I screamed the words, because I heard them come out of my mouth as the flight or fight instinct kicked in. But Lisa just stood there, frozen, with her mouth open, staring back at the man in disbelief.
I grabbed Lisa’s hand and the three of us ran as fast as we could across the field.
I remember wishing I was at home, sitting in the kitchen with my mother, and the sounds I heard: the stocky man clearing the fence, his breathing as he got closer, and my own cheap sneakers slapping against the grass as I willed myself to run faster.
Halfway across the field, an image caught my eye: Mrs. Baird’s station wagon turning the corner in our direction.
“It’s too late! Let’s go!” the driver called out to the strange man chasing us.
When we reached Lisa’s house, I looked behind me, sure the stranger was going to grab us. But he was gone.
And the car was now a speck on the horizon as it turned out of our neighborhood.
In a rush, we told Lisa’s parents what happened.
Her father, who had served in the military, gathered the three of us into his car and we drove the neighborhood, looking for the men. But I mostly kept my eyes on the gun Lisa’s father brought that sat on the console next to him.
During the ride, I felt a searing pain that I’ve never felt since. Every muscle in my entire body throbbed. It wasn’t from running, but a release of fear and the shock over what happened.
I remember wondering, what would’ve happened if the stocky man had caught me? If he threw me into his car, would I have tried to fight or run away so I could see my family again? And if he had taken one of my friends instead, would I have had the courage to try and save them?
To my knowledge, Lisa’s parents never contacted the police, as no officer ever interviewed me about the events that occurred that day. In hindsight, and now as a mother of two young children, I wonder why, as I am assuming this was not the first or last time the two men would hunt children.
After that, I always waved to Mrs. Baird every time I saw her, and I made sure to stay off her grass.
And when Lisa’s father dropped me off at my house, I hugged both my parents tightly, and felt like the luckiest girl in the whole world.
Jane Haseldine is a former journalist, crime reporter, columnist, newspaper editor, magazine writer, and deputy director of communications for a governor.
Stories, whether fiction or true, remain to me the greatest, most wonderful pure-spun magic around. ~~ Jane Haseldine
Born in Canada, Jane spent much of her early childhood on the road with her three siblings and parents, as her British father was always trying to cook up his next big business deal. Jane survived the long car rides that took her from the rocky coast of Maine to the deep red clay of Georgia in her early days by reading anything she could get her hands on, including the Chronicles of Narnia series, A Wrinkle in Time, and everything written by Judy Blume. Jane spent a good stretch of her later childhood in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and then Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she discovered John Steinbeck and after reading The Grapes of Wrath swore that she’d become a writer.
Jane graduated from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a degree in journalism and has spent her adulthood working at newspapers and magazines across the country, the wanderlust of the open road still staying with her as she’s called Louisiana, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania all home. While working for a newspaper not far from San Jose, California, she was working on a story about alleged corrupt acts by a police chief. She was furious when the editor forced her work on the story with the paper’s political reporter. But she notes that “things have a funny way of working themselves out sometimes.” She married the political reporter. Jane currently resides in Southern California with him and their two sons.
Thank you, Jane!